A Conversation with Peter Kreeft

PAUL CAMACHO

His style, both in teaching and in writing, is as unpretentious as it is fervent: in deeply profound, elegant, and often entertaining ways, Peter Kreeft questions the assumptions of modern thought with the wonderful wisdom and wit of a wider worldview.

Refusing to restrict reason to the narrow confines of modern philosophy, Kreeft draws deeply from all areas of human experience. He is fond of saying that his role of a professor is merely to introduce a student to a great thinker by means of their work, and then to allow them to converse: "Student, meet Socrates. Socrates, meet student." It is our hope that this interview will serve a similar purpose: "Reader, meet Prof. Kreeft."


You received your Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1965 and have been teaching philosophy at Boston College ever since. Why did you decide to become a philosopher?

I did not decide to become a philosopher any more than Fred Astaire decided to become a dancer or Alfred E. Neuman decided to have big ears. It was in my script. Actually, I was at first an English major in college, but I kept looking for the philosophy inside everything I read, so I went for the nut instead of the shell.


You have described philosophy as beginning in wonder. Could you explain what you mean by that, and how that is relevant to our culture of skepticism and cynicism?

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on that: wonder as the origin of philosophy. (1) It begins with surprise, shock. Little kids do it all the time; everything surprises them because they have no ruts yet. (2) Then it becomes intellectual; emotional wonder turns into intellectual wonder. We want to explain these surprises, like uncles and oranges and spiders and tubas. We naturally want to know why. It's a little kid's favorite word. We want to know everything there is to know about everything there is (to paraphrase Lonergan). (3) Finally, the deepest wonder, the fruit of the other two, is appreciation, contemplation: something very close to love. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all say "philosophy begins in wonder." If the thing done today by scholarly cyborgs doesn't, then it's not philosophy. It may be worthwhile to do. So is bookbinding, and computer repair, and news reporting; it's just a different thing. When you wonder, you get all still inside, not wordy. Words that come from wonder come from silence. They have heft, and weight. Words that come from other words are just more members of the chain gang. If that's no longer fashionable, so what? Chesterton says that whoever marries the spirit of the times must soon become a widower.


Who are your heroes, both philosophical and otherwise?

Jesus, Socrates, and my father. And Duke Kahanamoku, Bill Lee, and Chopin.


What have been your most popular classes over the years, and why do you think they have been so popular?

  • Tolkien because he's simply the greatest writer of the 20th century, and because I concentrate on just one great book;
  • Augustine's Confessions because there has never been another man or another book like it;
  • C.S. Lewis because no writer is more clear, honest, reliable, or full of joy;
  • World Religions because everyone wants to know the very deepest things in people's hearts and lives.


You have written over forty books, and are perhaps best known to your readers as a Christian apologist. What has it been like to be a faithful orthodox Christian in the field of philosophy?

I just try to tell the truth as I see it. I don't worry about what "the field of philosophy" is doing. The question seems to assume a tension between Christianity and philosophy, faith and reason. I don't feel it at all. In principle, faith and reason are allies because they are two communications from the same Author. In practice, many of the greatest philosophers have been Christians, and this continues to be true even in our secular age.


What has inspired you to write so many books? Why do you think they are so eagerly received?

Greed inspires me. Greed for truth, for one thing: I want to learn, and I learn best by teaching, and writing is a form of teaching. Greed to share the truths I find exciting and joyful with others, too. Greed to create, for another thing. What the artist wants to build with color or the musician with sound, the writer wants to build with words. And also, frankly, greed for enough money to keep a big extended family and a house in Newton. No greed for fame, though; that's just stupid. If anyone likes my books that's because they've stepped into the same boat I've invited them into and enjoyed the ride.

I write the books I want to read, but can't, because no one else writes them, so I have to write them before I can read them. I like to bridge the scholarly and the popular, to do philosophy and theology in a way intelligent readers who aren't academics can profit from. When they asked Mel Gibson what kind of a character he thought he had, he replied, "Somewhere between Saint Francis of Assisi and Howard Stern." I think my books are somewhere between G.K. Chesterton and Tim La Haye.


You are currently on sabbatical what are you working on right now? You have been working on a novel for quite some time now, is that to be forthcoming soon? More books in the Socrates Meets series?

Why do journalists always call any Catholic who isn't a heretic or an apostate a "devout" Catholic? Walker Percy used to say he was not a good Catholic, he was a bad Catholic. But that was back when there were lines at the confessionals.

I'm working on a novel that really isn't a novel, but a fictional set of documents that give you an angel's eye view of the connection between Jesus Christ, dead Vikings, the St. Michael statue in Gasson Hall, hopelessly Victorian romantics, sassy Black feminists, Dutch Calvinist seminarians, Jewish mother substitutes, Caribbean rubber dancers, Russian prophets, the disguises of angels, the Palestinian "intifadah," sea serpents, the fatal beauty of the sea, the Unified Field Theory, the Curse of the Bambino, armless nature mystics, two and a half popes, Islam in the art of body surfing, post-abortion trauma, the Great Blizzard of '78, the demon Hurricano, Jesuit philosophers, Nahant, the psychology of suicide, the ecumenical jihad, the victims of the Sexual Revolution, and the end of the world. I hope to get it done before that last item happens. Every September, I speed up if the Red Sox have any chance to get into the World Series, because that would be the apocalypse. Meanwhile, Socrates will meet Sartre, then Descartes, then Kant, then Freud (probably one a year).


You used to be a Reformed Protestant... when and why did you decide to become a Catholic?

I became a Catholic for the only honest reason anyone should: because it's true. I read my way into the Church in the same way Newman did: I tried to prove to myself that the Church Christ established was Protestant and then went wrong, that is, Catholic, later. I found the opposite. For instance, not one Christian in the world for the first 1000 years ever denied the Real Presence in the Eucharist.


Do you think this helps to account for the widespread appeal of your works across traditional denominational divides? What else about your writing explains this popularity?

Jews who become Christians today almost always say they have become better Jews, completed Jews. I think I'm more, not less, Evangelical as a Catholic than I was when I was an Evangelical Protestant. Read the Introduction to C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity for the answer to your question.


Although in many of your works you state that you are defending and explaining what C.S. Lewis calls "mere Christianity," you are also a devout and faithful Catholic and a staunch defender of the Church. After teaching at Boston College, a Catholic university, for over 35 years, what are your thoughts about the role the Church plays at B.C.?

A cafeteria is a place where you pick whatever foods you want. A home is where you eat what Mommy puts on your plate. The Church is not Alice's Restaurant, where "you can have anything you want." It's Mommy, and she puts a lot of strange food on your plate, things you never would have figured out on your own (like the Trinity) and things you don't want to eat (like the spinach of practicing all the virtues, even the unpopular ones, and avoiding the vices, even the popular ones).

Why do journalists always call any Catholic who isn't a heretic or an apostate a "devout" Catholic? Walker Percy used to say he was not a good Catholic, he was a bad Catholic. But that was back when there were lines at the confessionals.

When people ask me the question about how Catholic BC is, I like to say that it's Catholic enough to feel like my home but at the same time pagan enough to feel like a mission field. A university isn't a seminary, and a university in 21st century America is necessarily pluralistic. At the same time, the university historically emerged "from the heart of the Church," (ex corde ecclesia), and a Catholic university is not an anachronism or an oxymoron or a quirky, weird kind of university. The Church does not have direct supervision of BC. Yet if what the Church teaches is not true, there is no reason for BC to exist. Its identity is both Catholic and catholic (universal, open to all truth, and pluralistic). If it loses the first, it will become BU. That's quite possible; that happened to most Protestant universities. If it loses the second, it will become St. John's seminary or Weston School of Theology. That's not going to happen. It's simply silly for anybody to worry about that.


You often speak about "cafeteria-style" Catholics, a category many B.C. students fit into. Could you explain what you mean by this? What can be done to bring Catholics back to orthodoxy, and why is this important?

A cafeteria is a place where you pick whatever foods you want. A home is where you eat what Mommy puts on your plate. The Church is not Alice's Restaurant, where "you can have anything you want." It's Mommy, and she puts a lot of strange food on your plate, things you never would have figured out on your own (like the Trinity) and things you don't want to eat (like the spinach of practicing all the virtues, even the unpopular ones, and avoiding the vices, even the popular ones). I'm a Cafeteria Norseman. I love some things in Norse mythology. But I don't believe most of it. For instance, I love thunder, and I love to imagine I hear the hammer of Thor. It's a great image. But I'm not going to live for Thor or die for Thor. Thor didn't die for my sins.


Many B.C. students consider themselves to be Catholics, but state that they have trouble reconciling the Church's teachings with their own "personal beliefs." What would you say to such a student?

Think. And be fanatically honest with yourself. Don't play games with yourself. Lying to others is bad enough, but lying to yourself is like putting out your own eyes. So if your "personal beliefs" are just your feelings, ask yourself why Hitler wasn't as good as you are, because he lived according to his "personal beliefs" and feelings too.

Many of the Church's teachings don't require faith, only reason and honesty. For instance, the value of reason and honesty itself. I'd start by appealing to that. Use your reason. Think. And be fanatically honest with yourself. Don't play games with yourself. Lying to others is bad enough, but lying to yourself is like putting out your own eyes. So if your "personal beliefs" are just your feelings, ask yourself why Hitler wasn't as good as you are, because he lived according to his "personal beliefs" and feelings too. If, on the other hand, your "personal beliefs" are the result of your honest and rational search for truth, and you honestly believe you have good objective reasons for disbelieving some of the essential teachings of the Church, then you must follow your conscience and become a Protestant or a Muslim or a Buddhist or an agnostic or something else. If your personal beliefs contradict the Church's definition of the Catholic faith, then you are not a Catholic, any more than I am a Buddhist if I believe in egotism and war, or a Marxist if I believe in the stock market. That's not a personal insult, just a rational label. Honesty demands "truth in labeling."


What sort of changes have you noticed in your students over the years?

Everybody asks me that. The major answer is: nothing major at all. The human mind and heart doesn't change much. The media thrive on change, so they hype every little change. Really, the two clearest changes I can think of are both little: first, there aren't many sixties style hippies who think they can change the world and bring in the Age of Aquarius any more, they're too busy preparing for law school or med school; and second, their English skills and knowledge of history have deteriorated and their math and computer skills have increased. The elves are leaving Middle-earth and we are approaching The Matrix.


If you had to point to the biggest obstacle in society today facing Orthodox Christianity, what would it be?

Our own sins. They always have social consequences. We construct society, for good or ill, far more than it constructs us. It has no free will; we do. It is merely what we make; we are not merely what it makes. By "orthodox Christianity" I assume you mean the whole nine yards, the whole treatment.. That begins with faith, and truth, and teachings, but it ends with the works of love, with being saints. Only saints can save the world. And only our own sins can stop us from being saints.


There has been a lot of talk among students around campus lately about dissatisfaction with the current "hook-up" culture, in which students have replaced dating with what is described as random, no-strings-attached, inebriated sexual liaisons on weekends. What are your thoughts on this, and on how this can be overcome?

I believe in fear. When the ship is falling apart and sinking, it is better to feel fear than peace and self-esteem.

Perhaps a reading of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah might refresh our memories. At some point, a culture or an individual gets so bad that if they don't stop themselves, God does. No one knows where that point is until it's too late. And that's true for any evil: pride, hypocrisy, selfishness, injustice or "random, no-strings-attached, inebriated sexual liaisons," as you so charmingly put it.

I believe in fear. When the ship is falling apart and sinking, it is better to feel fear than peace and self-esteem. There was once an old book that people used to read, back in the Dark Ages. It was the book that taught us all about love and peace and hope and other upbeat stuff. That book also identified "the beginning of wisdom." It was fear: the fear of the Lord. I know psychologists sneer at that today, but I'd rather sneer at psychologists who sneer at God's psychology, than sneer at God's psychology.


What are your thoughts on Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ?

One does not "have thoughts" about that movie. One goes, sees, feels, participates, identifies, agonizes, dies something in you dies when you see that movie. Your distance, your safe perch from which to observe, your self-esteem. The movie is really about us. Gibson stands for all of us in that movie. You know how he put himself into it: the hand that hammers Christ's hand to the Cross is Gibson's hand. Your hand. My hand.

My candidate for the greatest line in any movie ever made is the one where Mary asks Christ when He's going to stop, why He has to go that far, after He's fallen down the third time under the Cross, and He picks up His cross He embraces it as a man embraces a woman, and turns to Mary and says, with almost a tiny smile, "See, Mother, how I make all things new." And then He goes on and does it.


What are your thoughts on the current debate about gay marriage?

As a philosopher the thing that strikes me most is the brilliant strategy of the gay marriage movement. Like Orwell in 1984 it sees that the main battlefield is language. If they can redefine a key term like "marriage" they win. Control language and you control thought; control thought and you control action; control action and you control the world. Mussolini knew that too. He made it illegal for Italians to say "hi" in the traditional way. The Italian for "how are you?" is "Come sta lei?" "Lei" is the feminine inclusive pronoun. Fascist ideology held that this was emasculating and weak, so you had to say "Come sta lui?" from now on. "Lui" is the masculine pronoun. So no one could say "hi" in Italy without identifying themselves as pro or anti-fascist.

I think you will find that there is an overwhelmingly strong connection between these three agendas: gay marriage, feminism, and abortion. Very seldom do you find people who are for one but not the other, or against one but not the other. And what they all have in common is this attitude toward language...

In America, the feminists have succeeded in exactly the same way. They've labeled the traditional inclusive language, the language of every single one of the great books of Western civilization written in English, as exclusive because it uses "he" and "man" to include women; and they've labeled their new artificial ideological invention, which insists, contrary to historical fact, that "he" and "man" exclude women they've labeled this "inclusive" language. And amazingly, nearly everyone follows like sheep! So it will be easy, I think, for them to redefine marriage. Hell, they've already redefined "human beings" or "persons" so that they can murder the littlest ones whenever they want to. Why should they feel any guilt about dishonesty when they don't feel any guilt about murder?

I think you will find that there is an overwhelmingly strong connection between these three agendas: gay marriage, feminism, and abortion. Very seldom do you find people who are for one but not the other, or against one but not the other. And what they all have in common is this attitude toward language: it is what the most powerful and insidious propaganda film in history called "the triumph of the will." Already in Canada it is a crime, punishable by a fine or even imprisonment, to speak against homosexuality in public. Politically incorrect ideas, such as Biblical morality, are now defined as "hate speech."

One of the things I fear from this is an ugly backlash against homosexuals. If the truth is now whatever we will, then just as there is nothing to stop society today from redefining marriage, there is nothing to stop it tomorrow from redefining personal dignity and rights so as to take them away from homosexuals. The Nazis did exactly that. The Church is the best friend of homosexuals, both because she tells them they are made in God's image and have intrinsic dignity and rights and are called to be saints, and because she is the only social force left that insists on moral absolutes so when they sin against themselves she says NO, just as she does to heterosexuals who sin against themselves sexually, but when others sin against them she says NO also. No one else dares to say NO. She speaks up for everyone, including homosexuals.


You wrote The Handbook of Christian Apologetics with Fr. Tacelli... what was it like working with him?

Perfect. He did some chapters, I did others. We didn't argue. I was the Navy, he was the Air Force.


You have described yourself as an avid surfer. Could you explain your fascination for surfing, and any connections you see between surfing and spirituality?

In 25,000 words or less? Wait till my novel comes out.

No, the temptation is too strong. Here's three answers: (1) Soul-surfing is becoming one with the wave, which is the form of all energy, and the form the energy of the Big Bang is taking right now, so surfing is a time machine that takes you back to the moment of creation. (2) Surfing is the only thing that never gets boring on earth because what you will do in Heaven is surf in God forever. (3) You have an evil twin who is always with you. He is called your ego. In surfing, you lose him. Surfing is the world's easiest mysticism.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Paul Camacho. "A Conversation with Peter Kreeft." Boston College Observer (April 22, 2004).

Reprinted by permission of Peter Kreeft.

THE AUTHOR

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.

He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2008 Peter Kreeft




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